Ted Leavengood: Cardiac kids take Chicago

Three tense and tightly contested games yielded two road wins for the Nationals in Chicago, thanks to surprising late-inning magic. Call them the “Comeback Kids,” the “Cardiac Kids” or whatever you will, but the Nationals scored nine times in the last two innings during the three-game set in the Windy City. The late heroics produced both wins and they almost pulled off a third Sunday for what would have been a sweep.

Keeping Kerry Wood out of Sunday’s game may have been the difference for the Cubs. Cubs fans wildly cheered when Wood appeared Thursday, according to Nationals fan Dan Flynn of Chevy Chase, who traveled to Chicago for all three games. Yet the same excited throng was silenced by two days of bullpen meltdowns and Flynn watched them leave the games in a dejected mood all too familiar to a Nats fan.

Jeff Samardzija tried to avoid the issue by throwing a complete game Sunday. He had a heater sitting at 98 mph to start the game and had limited the Nationals to a single run on only three hits as the ninth inning began. His performance was eerily reminiscent of Strasburg’s on Thursday, but there he was starting the final frame having thrown just under 100 pitches. Samardzija’s fastball had lost some of its zip, but he was just an out away from finishing a 4-1 win when a throwing error and a two-run home run by Adam LaRoche cut the lead to 4-3 and ended his day.

Carlos Marmol came into the game for the third time in three days. The brown and haunted ivy of Wrigley field sagged at the thought of another bullpen collapse. Marmol blew the save Saturday and took the loss Thursday. His 27.00 ERA going into the game was a dead-on match for Wood’s. But he had only to get a single out Sunday. He toyed with disaster by walking Jason Werth, but got ahead of Xavier Nady and put the Nationals away as Chicago held on to win the getaway game.

Cubs starters Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza frustrated the Nationals offense in the first two games until late in both games. The Nationals best offense may have been playing for Double-A Harrisburg in Bowie, Md., where Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel hit three home runs rehabbing with the Senators.

But Wood was enough of a trigger mechanism to launch the Washington offense in the two Chicago wins. Wood came in for the eighth inning Thursday and again Saturday. All together, he put six runners on base and recorded only three outs over two outings. Tyler Clippard, Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez were as good as Marmol and Wood were bad, as Clippard and Ryan Mattheus got both wins and Lidge and Rodriguez recorded the two saves.

It wasn’t just the bullpen or any one player; it was a family affair and pretty much everyone contributed. Almost a goat Thursday, LaRoche, bounced back and was one of the heroes on Saturday and got the Nationals back on the edge of tying the game Sunday with another home run. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa had their anemic numbers as table setters from 2011 flashed across the screen numerous times in the run-up to opening day, but they both played key roles, - especially Desmond, whose clutch hits overshadowed the quality at bats he had almost every time he came to the plate over the three games.

The 2012 Cubs, it should be noted, are without Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, and did little to upgrade the team in the offseason. They are part of a collection of April opponents the Nationals will face whose overall winning percentage last year was a lowly .442. Teams like the Reds and Marlins -- who will come in on the Nats’ first homestand - improved dramatically in the offseason. But the Chicago series provides the impetus for a strong start, the hope for a winning April once again in Washington.

The Mets will test that proposition over the next three days. They beat the Braves three times and had strong pitching in doing so. The law of averages may be working in the Nationals favor, however. Ryan Zimmerman will not hit .091 for much longer. A starting rotation that deserves a little love and an early lead or two would no doubt like to see him break out in a big way very, very soon.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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